Signals of hope and despair in the search for MH 370

April 13, 2014

The search for the missing Malaysian airliner is increasingly one with signals of hope and despair

At one level, the news coverage has settled into reporting a story of unremitting human tragedy of lives lost and of the despair of the grieving families, perhaps only sustained by flickers of hope which to the rest of us is mostly seen as part of the process of denial.

Another story

Yet there is another story of hope and despair replacing anger at what is seem as blundering and perhaps worse by the Malaysian authorities, and international surveillance bodies.

The story has become better coordinated, with recognized legitimacy from spokespersons from Australia. The hope is not for the lives of those on the missing plane, but for the hope of discerning what happened. Hope is expressed by confidence in the trace signals from the flight recorders in the plane.

Signals weaken

We have learned much from the news of the black box recorders. How they are physically red; how the signals received were increasingly accepted as authentic; how they are weakening a expected as their power sources run out. We know the region of search remains daunting albeit narrowed from the half a hemisphere of the initial days.

The news stories, unlike the signals being received, flicker between raised and dashed hopes. They offer echoes of the twin imposters of of Kipling, in which the twin impostors of triumph and disaster are replaced with those of hope and despair.


Dating site wins battle with Mozzila over gay rights stance of CEO Eich

April 4, 2014

The dating site OkCupid launched an on-line attack on the web-browser Mozilla for the perceived anti-gay stance of Mozilla’s new CEO Brendan Eich. Within days, Eich and other board members of Mozilla resigned

I noted this story as I am a user of Mozilla’s Firefox browser. I am also interested in the dilemmas behind leadership decisions, as these offer excellent starting points for making sense of leadership stories. Is this a moral stance or a publicity-seeking piece of PR, I wondered.

A dilemma

Here’s my personal dilemma. I approve of the overall philosophy behind the ‘open-source’ policy of Firefox. The browser serves my purposes reasonably well, with one distinct advantage over rivals who seem increasingly activating business models blatantly putting their commercial interests over the needs of their users. So there are ethical and pragmatic reasons for me to continue to support Mozzila’s Firefox.

It’s April Fool’s day

I came across the when scanning for April Fool’s day stories, and was suspicious of its authenticity at first. If it is a prank, it had been widely reported.

An ethical dilemma

So the ethical issue for me is an example of what Susan Sucher of Harvard calls the right versus right dilemma.

A tipping point?

I hesitate to use the term tipping point, but that’s how the story developed. A few days later, [April 3rd, 2014] pressure from its own Firefox users was followed by the resignation of the CEO and other members of the board. Here’s how the BBC’s Dave Lee reported it:

Brendan Eich was appointed just last month but came in for heavy criticism for his views on same-sex marriage. Mozilla’s executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker announced the decision in a blog post. Mr Eich, who co-founded Mozilla and was also the creator of the JavaScript scripting language, made a $1,000 (£600) donation in 2008 in support of Californian anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8. When the announcement of Mr Eich’s appointment was made [24 March, 2014] angry users voiced their opinions on social media. Several high-profile Mozilla employees also weighed in.

Three board members resigned in the weekend following Mr Eich’s appointment – but Mozilla said the events were not linked. But the most damaging act of protest came via dating website OkCupid. Users who went to the site using Mozilla’s Firefox browser were greeted with a message that read: “Hello there, Mozilla Firefox user. Pardon this interruption of your OkCupid experience. Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla.

I didn’t see that coming.


Donald Trump shifts his attention to Ireland after losing Scottish wind-farm legal battle

February 20, 2014

This week the resilient Donald Trump bounces back from losing his battle against off-shore wind farms which he claimed were wrecking his plans for a super resort and golf complex in Aberdeenshire.  It seems that Scotland’s loss is to be Ireland’s gain

Donald Trump has bought a five star golf resort on the west coast of Ireland after losing a legal action against a windfarm being built near his golf resort in Aberdeenshire in Scotland.

The billionaire property developer said that while he appealed against the court defeat in Scotland he would be diverting his energies to the exclusive Doonbeg golf and hotel complex on the Atlantic coastline of County Clare, restyling it the Trump International Golf Links, Ireland.

Trump had taken the Scottish government to court over a decision to approve a major experimental windfarm in Aberdeen Bay, which will be about two miles south east of his planned £750m golf resort, because it spoiled the view.

Trump’s tale

We have been followed the leadership style and actions of Mr Trump in LWD for some years.

His interest in building a world class golf facility in Scotland was dogged in legal controversies from the start. Initially, the legal objections came from environmentalists and local residents. Later, it was Mr Trump who sought legal rights to protect his interests.

Leadership style

The Trump style of leadership seemed blunt rather than devious or Machiavellian. This places him at some disadvantage over pressure groups whose leaders have long experience of challenging the powerful and drawing attention to their cause.  Maybe Donald trump will now learn from his experiences. Otherwise there will be one more extended story as the local bhoys prepare to deal with the latest foreign threat to their culture and coast line.


The execution of Jang Song-thaek, and the limits of The Great Man theory of leadership

December 14, 2013


The Great man theory of leadership has been gradually eroded by recognition of the ultimate dilemmas of absolute power

The execution of Jang Song-thaek in North Korea this week [December 2013] has been presented outside the state as evidence of the ultimate power vested in its absolute ruler, Kim Jong Un. This assumes that the newly appointed ‘great leader’ acted without being influenced by anyone else. This is generally assumed as the action of someone with absolute power

As The Telegraph put it

In making this very public display of ruthlessness Kim Jong-un probably had three objectives. Firstly, [sic] nobody in North Korea can doubt now that he, and he alone, is in charge. Nor can anybody doubt that he is utterly ruthless in removing absolutely anybody who might, in the colourful language of the indictment, “dream different dreams”.
Secondly, Kim Jong-un has told his country – and the world – that not only Jang the man, but also the vision that he stood for, has been purged. Jang Song-thaek seems to have argued for a less closed North Korea, one that embraced trade and encouraged inward investment.
Thirdly, this is a slap in the face for China. China is often described as North Korea’s only ally but with every nuclear test and every provocative missile launch the relationship has become more strained. After North Korea’s third nuclear test in February China recalibrated its policy to North Korea.

The contradiction

Kim has acted decisively to ‘crush’ his enemy, as recommended by Machiavelli. I always felt this advice requires careful positioning in its historical context. Anyway, the leader who has to crush his enemy can hardly be the great all-powerful leader who is feared but not hated. It seems more like the leader beleaguered by forces internal and external to his regime.

Little wonder that ‘Great man’ theories of leadership are gradually drifting out of fashion.


Service leadership: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

October 24, 2013

Theories of ethical leadership need to account for acts of self-interest. Evolutionary psychology has an equation explaining altruism in Darwinian terms

The theory has relevance in the UK, as the Government attempts to encourage more widespread acts of service leadership in tough economic times. It presents a dilemma to economists who have trouble fitting altruism into approaches which rely on equations to test hypotheses grounded in assumptions of rational human behaviours in decision-making.

If altruism has its existence outside the dominant rational model, less traditional ‘maps’ of leadership will gain in credibility. A pithy question posed by a BBC correspondent recently reaches the heart of the debate: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

The article outlined the altruism equation conceived by George Price, an American evolutionary biologist whose work was taken up when he relocated to University College London in the late 1960s. I summarize the BBC piece below:

George Price’s equation addressed a problem that has vexed scientists since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species more than a century earlier. If we are selfish creatures, engaged in a battle for survival, why do we display altruism? Why do we show kindness to others even at a cost to ourselves?

Price’s equation explained how altruism could thrive, even amongst groups of selfish people. It built on the work of a number of other scientists, arguably beginning with JBS Haldane, a British biologist who developed a theory in the early 1950s. When asked if he would sacrifice his own life to save that of another, he said that he would, but only under certain conditions. “I would lay down my life for two brothers, or eight cousins.” Haldane’s reasoning was a simplistic explanation of a theory that has come to dominate evolutionary biology – that of “kin selection”. Since he would share 50% of each brother’s genetic makeup, and 12.5% of each cousin’s, his genes would survive even if he were to die.

In the 1960s another scientist, William Donald Hamilton, popularised the theory. He wrote a simple equation to explain that an organism would demonstrate self-sacrificing behaviour if it would enhance the reproductive chances of those it was closely related to.

Price arrived in London with no background in the field of evolutionary biology. Working in seclusion, he rewrote the Hamilton equation in a simpler but more wide-reaching way. It explained the relationship between different generations of a population, and could be used to show how the prevalence of particular traits would change over time.

Although it was a fairly simple statement, it had never been expressed in clear mathematical terms, and the staff at the University College London recognised his insight as wildly original.

A debate about the scientific roots of altruism still rages to this day, but kin selection remains a hugely influential theory, and Price’s contribution is held in high regard by many.

“It underpins a lot of modern evolutionary biology research,” says Andy Gardner, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, who uses the Price Equation in much of his work. Oren Harman, who wrote Price’s biography in 2010, says the view is shared by plenty of people in the field.

Samir Okasha, professor of the philosophy of science at Bristol University, thinks not. “The idea [that evolutionary theory shows that altruism is self-interest in disguise] is, to my mind, a questionable thing to say. Behaviour in some animal species is indeed genetically determined, but with humans he argues culture sets us apart from animals in that respect, and points to the huge variance in social norms in different countries, and over short periods of time.

Beyond kinship

The debate is rooted in the dominant rational model of human behaviour. Price’s equation suggests that decisions may be assessed for their rationality according to the calculus of genetic benefits resulting from them. It is a map predicting that humans act in the interests of the gene pool so that selfless acts may actually be rational and therefore not so selfless. It argues that self-interest is served by so-called altruistic actions.

Rational tyranny?

Research into socio-biology is becoming important. The ‘map’ of altruism is not easily dismissed. Neither are the maps drawing on moral philosophy and religious belief systems. A thought struck me. Social Darwinists believed in the ‘natural order of things’, including the instinct found among species to destroy the offspring carrying competitive genes. Perhaps there should be an equation on the rationality of what in humans is seen as tyrannical survival tactics?


Leadership succession: Tony Blair, Terry Leahy, Alex Ferguson, Lord Browne … and Steve Ballmer

October 7, 2013

Leaders hailed as the greatest by direct comparison with their contemporaries often leave a legacy that is tough for a successor to deal with

This point was examined recently by journalist Chris Blackhurst [October 3rd 2013] in The Independent. He chose four towering figures from recent years, from politics, business, and sport.

He takes as his thesis that succeeding an influential leader is tough. His point is that the departure may be made with more concern by the leader for legacy than for the organisation’s longer term well-being.

The trigger

The article was triggered by the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United football club which was followed by a poor start to the season for the new manager David Moyes. Moyes was very much Ferguson’s chosen successor, one of clearest examples available of a leader’s critical decision over succession.

At Old Trafford, David Moyes has succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson, only to find that last season’s Premiership champions are in poor shape, that the Manchester United squad requires urgent strengthening. As worrying for United’s fans and owners is that Moyes appears to have been put in charge of a team in torpor. They’re no longer playing with the same drive and hunger that so characterised the Ferguson reign.

Blackhurst makes the general point succinctly:

Beware the chieftain who has been in office for a lengthy period; who is used to getting their way, who only needs to snap their fingers and it will be done; who refuses to countenance stepping down, to the extent that no successor is properly groomed; and when they do finally decide to go, it is too late. Quitting while ahead – it’s the best management attribute of all.

He illustrates with the examples of Tony Blair, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, and Lord Browne of BP. He touched briefly on Margaret Thatcher, and might have added Steve Jobs of Apple, and [another very recent example] Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. A closer examination suggests that the situations and the leaders are too varied to provide a nice clean theoretical idea. Was internal selection possible or desirable? Did the leader leave without being forced out? Was the evidence of declining personal abilities to do the job?

Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, announced his retirement a few years earlier and the market value of Manchester United plummeted. The evidence is that he retracted and spent the next few years considering how his eventual retirement might be planned more successfully. He did not ‘refuse to countenance stepping down’, although Margaret Thatcher’s political demise was closer to the description offered by Blackhurst.

Tony Blair was successful in winning three elections for Labour, which he had reshaped as New Labour. His legacy is haunted by his military policy in Iraq. Blair tried but was unable to arrange a successor he wanted. Gordon Brown is seen as contributing to Labour’s defeat at his first election. Sir Alex a close confident of Tony Blair seems to have learned from his friend the art of personal retirement planning with an impressive and rapid entry into the lucrative celebrity circuit.

Terry Leahy at Tesco appears to have selected Philip Clarke or agreed with the decision. Mr Clarke found that the company was in near free fall.

Lord Browne, whom Blackhurst suggested stayed to long at BP, left after personal problems. His chosen successor Tony Hayward was engulfed by the greatest disaster to befall the company.

Steve Jobs left Apple for health grounds, but had some say in the appointment of his successor.

Lady Thatcher had no say in the matter, although her departure opened the way to Tony Blair’s successive election victories.

The dilemma of succession

Succession remains a dilemma for a leader, and for those considered candidates as a successor. The issue has been around for nearly as long as stories have been written about leaders. We should at least be aware of the possibility of the ‘hero to zero’ process, as an earlier and over-generous evaluation of a leader is rewritten.

An example of this can be found in an article in Business Week in 2006 hailing the succession planning in Microsoft when Steve Ballmer replaced Bill Gates. Mr Ballmer’s departure this month [Oct 2013] was told in a different way.


The America’s Cup 2013 and the Ainslie effect

September 27, 2013

America's Cup 2013The victory this week by the American team Oracle, in the prestigious America’s cup yachting competition was hailed as one of the all-time great sporting recoveries. It coincided with a leadership intervention. It is tempting to see a simple cause and effect relationship.

Background:

The BBC account [September 26 2013] recorded the astonishing comeback:

Sir Ben Ainslie’s Oracle Team USA sealed one of sport’s greatest comebacks when they overhauled an 8-1 deficit to beat Team New Zealand [The Emirates, Nexpresso] in the America’s Cup decider in San Francisco. The holders won eight straight races to triumph 9-8 after being docked two points for cheating in the build-up. Oracle surged to victory by 44 seconds to retain the Cup they won in 2010.

The Kiwis won four of the first five races, making Oracle modify their boat and call Ainslie from the warm-up crew. The British sailing legend, 36, a four-time Olympic champion, was drafted in as tactician in place of American veteran John Kostecki and was instrumental in the US outfit’s resurgence.

“It’s been one of the most amazing comebacks ever, I think, almost in any sport but certainly in sailing and to be a part of that is a huge privilege,” said Ainslie, who combined superbly with Oracle’s Australian skipper James Spithill and strategist Tom Slingsby, another Australian who won Laser gold at London 2012, to drag the syndicate back from the brink in the most remarkable turnaround in the event’s 162-year history.

The New Zealanders, with impressive early pace upwind and slicker boat handling, opened up a seven-point lead (six to minus one) as Oracle’s crew and equipment changes took effect. But the US outfit, bankrolled by software billionaire Larry Ellison, were soon up to speed and won 10 of the next 12 races to lift the oldest trophy in international sport.

The Kiwis, led by skipper Dean Barker, came within two minutes of glory in race 13 in uncharacteristic light winds before organisers abandoned the race because the 40-minute time limit had elapsed. In the decider on San Francisco Bay, Team New Zealand edged a tight start and beat Oracle to the first mark. The Kiwis stayed clear around the second mark but lost the lead to the Americans early on the upwind leg. After briefly retaking the advantage, the Kiwis then watched as Oracle stormed ahead with remarkable upwind pace and remained clear for a comfortable win.

The ‘Ainslie and momentum’ story

One story is that faced with a deficit of 8-1 in a first to 9 match, the Americans called for Ainslie, and Oracle won eight straight races. Ainslie described how ‘momentum’ had swung in favour of the Oracle team during the fight back.

An alternative analysis

After four straight losses, the Oracle team introduced a whole series of changes, including serious technical modifications and personnel adjustments. Increased competitive performances followed, but another four races were lost. Then a win, almost certainly seen as a consolation before eventual capitulation. Even with an edge in performance, Oracle would have to survive all literal and metaphorical ill-winds for all eight remaining races. The team was close to losing the match in race 13, which was abandoned, boats becalmed, with their opponents well ahead. That would have ended the beautiful story of a glorious fight back.

In this alternative analysis, a series of changes both of technical and behavioural kind resulted in a significant improvement in performance. There was no identifiable tipping point, although one seems likely to be created in hindsight as the appointment of Ainslie.

Implications

Beware of simple causal explanations of change processes. Test theoretical explanations based on terms such a a tipping point or a momentum swing against the evidence of what happened in practice. In the UK the team has been regularly described as Ainslie’s team. The notion of distributed leadership has a long way to go.


British Airways struggles in the competitive world of airline travel

August 12, 2013

Airlines around the world are competing fiercely for business. Creativity, robust business models and effective leadership will be required to survive

Unsurprisingly, airlines have become one of the favourite sources of business school cases. The American Southwest airlines has been studied for its innovative “no frills/customer care” approach. LWD has looked at Emirates for its complex business model (is it more a vehicle for fulfilling Dubai’s development aspiration?). We have also commented on the often egregious leadership styles exhibited by airline CEOs, such as Willy Walsh of British Airlines.

Why Southwest is a dangerous case to study

I have listened to many student presentations lauding Southwest over the flailing giants of the industry which in comparison show financial vulnerability. One point that is rarely mentioned is that Southwest, a fine example of strategic leadership, is also a relatively simple business to study. [Compare its number of destinations, fleet size, freight business and scheduled passenger distances for example with Delta or even British Airways. However, the case helps Professors make the kind of glib generalization I offered for it above]. Southwest has pioneered the so-called peanut airlines which have replaced meals by peanut snacks. Even within the peanut lines the business models must not be assumed to be identical. Ryanair sees Southwest as its inspiration, but has approached customer satisfaction in a completely different way.

Dilemmas for old and new airlines

The old airlines struggle with older fleets. With a strong business model this may eventually turn out well. The newer airlines have the advantages of the technological advances in the new generations of plane. They also have the disadvantages of untested glitches that beset new models.

Just an opinion

This weekend, I read of the problems encountered by passengers on a British Airlines flight attempting to travel on the Boeing 747 to London from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [7 August 2013]. After a forced return to Riyadh, believed to a problem with the wing flaps, the plane set off and turned back again.

On my last British Airways flight in July, from Heathrow to Manchester, the plane sat on the runway for nearly two hours. The first announcement said that the safety checks had not been carried out overnight. The second announcement said that a toilet needed fixing, the third announcement that a piece of equipment was being brought to fix a wing flap.

Personal opinions make poor business analyses. I do not suggest from these two episodes that British Airlines is a bad or dangerous airline. I still like its service, and of course its safety record and will continue to use its services. The anecdotes indicate the increasing operational pressures that accompany extremely competitive businesses. I hold a similar view over BP and the factors contributing to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Stop Press: BA and the leaders we deserve

A curious little story from Sri Lanka of a British Airlines fight and a political leader who tried to get out while the plane was in motion. OK, so I was attracted by the title of the piece “The Leaders We Deserve”.


Zero-hours contracts: the battle between flexibility and ethical management at McDonalds

August 8, 2013

Zero-hour contracts have become a trending issue as companies such as McDonalds balance efficiency against corporate social responsibilities

As happens, one firm is picked on in the media to illustrate a broader issue. In the case of zero-hours contracts, this week [August 2013] the firm is McDonalds.

The article in The Independent notes:

McDonald’s has admitted 90 per cent of its UK employees are on zero-hours contracts. The admission indicates the fast-food chain is potentially the largest zero-hours employer in the UK’s private sector, with 82,800 contracted staff not guaranteed work or a stable income.

The controversial practice requires employees to be available for work when it is required but, as they are contracted for 0 hours a week, employers are under no obligation to use them or pay them a set wage. This allows businesses not to pay staff during quiet periods, but ensures they are available to work at short notice when required.

UK Politicians have reacted to McDonald’s admission by calling for it to offer affected staff a new contract with a minimum hours guarantee.

The concept of a zero-hours contract appeals as an efficiency device. Organizations are able to pick and choose workers and avoid paying for slack times. Indeed, the notion of slack is worth considering. Economists have argued that slack is unproductive time, the enemy of efficiency. Innovation theorists in contrast have argued that slack time is vital for innovation. How can an organization develop a creative culture without time to ‘play with the future’. The appeal of Taylorism is that slack-time is reduced, even eliminated, in theory. Fordism, became its exemplar. Thus, modern management from its inception may be seen as approving the principle of zero-hours contracts.

From a different perspective

From a different perspective, behavioural scientists have long concluded that worker dissatisfaction eventually contributes to other losses in productivity through demotivated workers, militancy, and an increased tendency towards that economic sin, free-riding or exploiting fellow-workers to minimize personal effort.

Zero-hours contracts became politically interesting in the UK this year [2013] as a survey by The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development claimed that a million workers, around four percent of the working population could have such working arrangements.

Interesting, the practice is more common in the voluntary and public sectors than in private industry.

Zero-hours contracts were initially introduced in hotels, restaurants and shops, but their use has spread to the public sector because of spending cuts. The number has reached almost 100,000 in the National Health Service, while new figures show more than 270 government staff are on such contracts. Unison, Britain’s second biggest union, called for them to be outlawed. Its general secretary, Dave Prentis, said: “The vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain. Not knowing from week to week what money you have coming in to buy food and pay your bills is extremely nerve-wracking.”

Good or bad for workers?

It has been argued that the arrangement suits some individuals. I am less convinced the argument can be extended, as it has become, to entire categories such as students.

Good or bad for employers?

The greater enthusiasm shown in the public sector figures suggests that private organizations are more cautious about the arrangements. I found this unexpected at first sight. Are for-profit outfits more concerned about their workers? Or might it be they are more aware of hidden responsibilities owed to the zero-hours employees, yet to be tested in law.


Who owns Old Trafford?

August 1, 2013

Who owns the iconic Old Trafford football stadium, home to Manchester United Football Club? A council decision raises complex legal issues

Manchester United Supporters Trust have been granted rights at Old Trafford stadium if the club is ever sold, through a ruling of the local council. This ruling classes the ground as an Asset Of Community Value. Unsurprisingly, the current owners of the club anticipate legal implications in the ruling. For example, would a decision to change the club’s name to strengthen its financial position be affected? Would the value in a future sale be influenced?

To the non-legal eye

To the non-legal eye, it all looks rather peculiar. The Trust talks of representing ‘the fans’. I can see the symbolic weight in this. But wait a minute. A few months ago, figures were published claiming a measurable proportion of the World’s population could be classed as Manchester United fans. It could be argued that The Supporters Trust represents millions of fans world wide, or maybe only its signed-up members.

No trivial issue

This is no trivial issue. In the UK at the moment, The Trades Union movement is currently embroiled in a debate regarding the rights they have over the Labour Party, though the individual subscriptions of its members, its block votes representing those member at Labour Party conferences, and its influence over the political policies of The Labour Party. Much politicking is taking place over the rights of individual members (some who are not Labour supporters) to opt out of the political levy included in the existing arrangements.

Which brings us back to Manchester United, its fans, and its legal owners.

Squatters rights and just cause

Another lens through which to examine the story: Various cases have been tested in court throughout the years over squatters rights and tenants rights. Common law principles are often evoked. The cases can become highly fraught, as the parties of weaker power resort to increasingly illegal methods outside the courtrooms, acting in what the individuals under threat believe to be on behalf of a just cause.

Which makes for good newspaper stories. Sometimes victory goes to the just, although more often to the powerful.


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